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Public discourse takes an uncivil turn

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

It is always good to return home, and with that attitude my wife and I returned to the United States last week after having spent a month in Rome, Italy, where I preached four Sundays at the Pont Sant' Angelo Methodist Church. This English-speaking congregation sits on the Tiber River within a stone's throw of St. Peter's Basilica.

One thing I dreaded about coming back involves re-experiencing our national incivility regarding governance, a meanness from which I was largely insulated while in Italy.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of that nation is a poor model for the conduct of an elected official, and one Italian's description to me of this leader as a "clown on stilts" indicates that sharp and demeaning political discourse crosses national boundaries. But since I couldn't read the Italian newspapers and had no interest in Italian governance, I found myself outside political discourse. The key Italian words I learned were gelato and vino rosso, which might be its own prescription for a much happier world.

The day we left the United States from Savannah (Aug. 2), President Obama was speaking in Atlanta. Just to make conversation with one of the uniformed security officials who check identification at the airport, I commented to him, "It's probably a good thing you are working in Savannah this morning rather than in Atlanta. Your job might be a lot more hectic there, since President Obama is speaking today."

Without cracking a smile and never hesitating a moment, he replied, "Maybe his plane will crash and take care of our problems."

I was completely taken aback by this comment from a man in official uniform and presumably conducting himself in a professional way. He had expressed to a total stranger his desire for the tragic death of our president.

Unwilling to engage in policy debate on the way to my gate, but hoping to lessen what I took to be an incredibly harsh remark, I observed, "I wouldn't want such a thing to happen to any U.S. president, no matter who they were."

But this official never backed town, quickly responding, "I wouldn't want such a thing to happen to a good president." President Obama, apparently not meeting the criteria of "good," was a candidate for tragedy in order to set our country right.

A minor exchange, you say. Just the sour comment of one man who needs more take home pay and less government.

I am not so sure. This man's public willingness to casually and publicly yearn for the death of our president suggests that Glenn Beck may be correct when he recently decried our "national darkness." For various reasons, today quite a few people are angry. But those who profess that there is a Name above all names and an Authority above all earthly powers, while remaining involved in governance and political discourse, must choose words carefully, lest such offhand comments become commonplace.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.